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Liability in the Age of Covid-19

By: Noelle Connor, Esquire

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of life as we know it. In March 2020, when the pandemic lockdown occurred, the term Covid-19 was new to most of us. For many people, uncertainty and worry became part of daily life. In the legal arena, the Covid-19 pandemic has raised some important questions.  One question was the extent to which healthcare professionals could be held liable for Covid deaths. Another by extension, is what the standard of care is for treatment of any rare disease.

At the beginning of the pandemic, hospitals were understaffed and overflowing with patients. There were hospital bed shortages, and the medical field was working quickly to understand Covid-19 and how to slow the spread. Retired nurses and doctors were asked to return to work to help alleviate the burden on overworked staff. Because of the possible implications of a Covid diagnosis, and the threat (medically and legally) to health care workers who were on the front lines, many states, including NJ, implemented a law that immunized health care workers, acting in good faith to save lives, from negligence lawsuits related to the treatment of Covid-19.

In 2020, Governor Murphy signed Bill No. S2333 offering significant legal protections to health care workers and health care organizations dealing with the coronavirus. The bill protected them from civil damages for acts or omissions in treatment that led to injury or death. This allowed medical staff to focus on treatment of patients and self-care. The bill was limited to the treatment of Covid-19. It did not include other provider services, such as obstetrics/gynecology, orthopedic procedures, etc. It also did not grant immunity from acts or omissions that constituted crimes, fraud, actual malice, gross negligence, recklessness, or willful misconduct.

While new variants of SARS-CoV-2 continue to present themselves, effective June 4, 2021, N.J.S.A 26:13-33 ended civil immunity related to the Covid-19 response beginning on September 1, 2021. Individuals specifically engaged in vaccinations or testing related to the coronavirus were excepted.

In June 2021, a significant link between rare disease and the coronavirus 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic was also found,  which led to the establishment of an advisory council (New Jersey Rare Disease Advisory Council) to examine the issues that affect persons with rare diseases in New Jersey. Many people who live with rare diseases are immunosuppressed and have respiratory and neurologic issues that make the consequences of the virus much more severe. The council is comprised of qualified professionals and persons living with rare diseases and is tasked with educating medical professionals, government agencies, and the public about the importance of rare diseases as an important public health issue, and to encourage research in the development of new treatments for rare diseases.

Rare diseases are often misdiagnosed and mistreated because of their rarity and similarity of symptoms to other more well-known conditions. A council aimed at increasing knowledge related to detecting and treating rare diseases should decrease potential liability for medical professionals and facilities consistently doing their best to always provide the right treatment at the right time.